Penguins actually come from… Australia and New Zealand, not Antarctica

New genetic research has allowed us to figure out exactly where penguins came from and when they appeared there, and in the process, they’ve come up with quite a surprise.

Penguins actually come from... Australia and New Zealand, not Antarctica

The research suggests that the famous infants first appeared off the coast of Australia and New Zealand about 22 million years ago, only later making the journey south to the much colder waters of Antarctica. And how was this determined? Scientists took blood and tissue samples from 18 species of penguins, with the goal of sequencing the penguin genome and effectively tracing its evolution as the flightless creatures spread around the world. This was to provide answers to many questions that the scientific community has argued about for years, such as where penguins really came from.

Pop culture has been spot on linking penguins to cold and snowy landscapes, especially since the two oldest and largest species, the king penguin and the emperor penguin, now reside in the frigid Antarctic environment. Except… that’s not where they originated from and, in fact, long ago they preferred much warmer climates, such as the coastal waters of Australia and New Zealand, where they appeared some 21-22 million years ago, which is much later than we previously thought, because scientists were aiming rather at 40 million years ago. What’s more, the new research also helped address a hypothesis that considered whether king and emperor penguins are sister species (a group of organisms that arose from a single evolutionary lineage) to other penguin species.

The evolutionary path suggests that king and emperor penguins quickly moved south to cooler sub- and Antarctic waters, developing the ability to tolerate very cold temperatures: – It was very satisfying to solve a puzzle that had been debated for a long time. The debate stood on where on the evolutionary tree to place king and emperor penguins, whether they are closer to other families, or whether they are sister species to all other species. That’s what our and previous studies suggest. And it fits with the history of penguin fossils,” explains one of the study’s authors, Rauri Bowie.

The great diversification of penguins, allowing them to spread around the world, took place some 12 million years ago. When the Drake Strait opened up enough to accelerate the West Wind Current, the non-nesting penguins began to populate the warmer regions of South America and Africa. This means that they have been able to adapt to life in incredibly different conditions, from 9 degrees Celsius in the waters of Australia and New Zealand, to – 26 degrees Celsius in the waters of Antarctica, only to return again to warmer climates of 26 degrees in the Galapagos Islands. And even though we are talking about a slow evolutionary process that took millions of years, it is still impressive!

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